A Former Skeptic’s Story of Collaboration in the Humanities

Written by: Laura McGrath

Primary Source: Gradhacker

mirrorIf you had told me three years ago that I would be a proponent of collaboration in the humanities, I would have laughed at you. Three years ago, I was concluding an MA in Higher Education. With the exception of my thesis, I submitted mostly collaboratively authored papers and almost always worked in assigned groups during the two-year MA. Yet, I wasn’t sold on collaborative scholarship. I said “Thanks, but no thanks,” and took my chances in an English PhD program. As a scholar in the humanities, I assumed I would be free of cumbersome group work, free to work alone.

Who knew I would find myself actually benefiting from group work.

Collaboration is on the upswing in the humanities. Now three years into my program, I’m about to conclude a year of a sustained digital humanities research project; we’ve worked together since the project’s inception, building, conferencing, and now co-authoring an article. All of this from a girl who’s spent years avoiding collaboration like the plague.

Here at GradHacker, we’ve offered many suggestions about how you can collaborate. You can use Google+ Hangouts to hold meetings; we’ve got lots of advice on teaching collaboration. It’s even been suggested that collaboration might be the key to solving the world’s problems.Collaboration is one way to build strong support networks.  But in my experience, despite the collections by Gilbert and Gubar adorning our bookshelves, collaboration is a tough sell to grad students in the humanities. We’re not taught how to do it. It’s perceived as high-risk, low-reward. It’s hard to see what stands to be gained when the monograph is the standard for success. I want to suggest that you shouldn’t fear collaboration. It’s one of the best ways to discover who you are as a scholar: collaboration is a mirror.

There are lots of ways that a graduate student in the humanities might find herself collaborating with others. For me, it’s been literary GIS. Others might design a course together, co-present a paper or co-chair a panel at a conference, or co-author an article. You might collaborate with your fellow TAs on pedagogical methods. No matter the situation, collaboration offers a host of possibilities to reflect yourself, revealing your strengths and weaknesses.

Reflect on your process

One major benefit of collaboration is that it reveals your processes and assumptions about research and writing.  Learning and understanding the way that others think and work has enhanced my metacognition, forcing me to be more reflective about my research andwriting process, an essential first step to begin enhancing productivity. Through working with others who outline thoroughly, I’ve learned that I prefer a writing-is-thinking approach. I’ve learned that I am more productive when I make detailed checklists, full of discrete, achievable goals; in contrast, other colleagues thrive when they can see the big picture. I’ve learned more about the way I work through collaboration than I ever would have learned alone. This knowledge has been essential for boosting my productivity and playing to my strengths, both in collaborative and individual work.

Reflect on your writing

Collaborative writing groups can function like a regular peer-reviewprocess, a major benefit to improving your writing skills. When writing collaboratively, I constantly have to ask myself, “Is this the best way to phrase this? Am I saying what I think I’m saying?” I’ve become aware of what I’m good at, what I should avoid, and what I overuse. I’ve learned about my strengths and weaknesses as a writer thanks to the regular feedback from my peers. Most importantly, collaborative writing has helped me distinguish my scholarly voice, in large part thanks to my colleagues’ keen observations. I don’t write like my friend Steven, who can turn-a-phrase like Oscar Wilde. I don’t write like my friend Sarah, who gives Hemingway a run for his money in the Department of Succinctness. I don’t write like my friend Anna, master of the scholarly verb. I write like me. Collaborative writing has helped me learn to write like me, only better.

Reflect on your collegiality

One of the regular pro-collaboration arguments I’ve heard is that you will collaborate throughout your career. Unless you’re a mega-scholar, no potential employer is going to create a department for you, so you will undoubtedly be working closely with colleagues in the future. And there is no better way to learn about who you are as a group member than through collaboration. Learn and practice now the major skills that will help you to be a gracious and sought-after colleague. Collaborating will force you to think about—and, if you’re like me, improve—your listening skills. You will be forced to develop a strategy for balancing competing demands. Most importantly, you’ll learn how to differentiate between individual interests and common group interests. Sometimes, collaboration means setting your personal interests aside for the good of the group. Collaboration will teach you who you are as a colleague and partner.

But remember, fools rush in. When we grad students are working hard to distinguish ourselves as emerging scholars in our fields, questions ofattribution and credit are important. The single-authored monograph is still the standard for success in my discipline, though the tides may be changing; a great collaborative project is still no replacement for a book, or a peer-reviewed article published in a reputable journal. Let me be clear: collaboration can be a great way to empower you as a scholar and equip you to succeed in your individual work. If a potential project will not advance your individual scholarly goals, don’t do it. Decide how much time you’re willing to spend on collaborative work at the outset, keeping your scholarly milestones a priority, and don’t exceed that time. Set firm boundaries, and always keep the end-goal in mind.

I am not going to pretend that collaboration is easy; it’s not. Not all departments are supportive of collaboration, and you should consult your advisor at the outset. Even with these risks and pitfalls in mind, I believe that collaboration can be a great way to reflect on your own goals and habits, equipping you to become a better scholar, that collaboration can benefit you as an individual.

What about you? Do you have opportunities to collaborate? What have you learned through collaboration? In what areas have you grown, or been stretched? Tell us about your experience!

[Image by Flickr user Nomadic Lass, used under Creative Commons License]

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I'm Laura B. McGrath, a Doctoral Candidate in English at Michigan State University, specializing in modernism in the 21st Century. I teach English literature, film studies, and First-Year Rhetoric, both at MSU and Calvin College. I write at Emerging Modernisms and GradHacker, and quote Ernest Hemingway impossibly often.

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